Winter drought prompts MN farmers to hedge spring bets

Preserved prairie
Brian Greenslit walks through a preserved prairie on his property near Franklin, Minn. Greenslit said that if there is not around two and a half inches of precipitation before the planting season, it may cause problems for the planters, and a drought if the lack of precipitation continues. ()
Jackson Forderer for MPR

The sky over the Brian Greenslit farm the other day was a promising shade of gray. The clouds looked like the type that could drop some real precipitation -- and they did, at least a little.

"It sprinkled some beautiful snowflakes for about 15 minutes," Greenslit said. "But not enough to even cover the ground. Just enough to make the sidewalk wet."

That's pretty much been the story on Greenslit's southwest Minnesota farm since last summer - very little moisture. At a time of the year when normally the land is all white, there's no snow on the fields.

Minnesota farmers are still a couple of months away from spring planting, but already such dry soil conditions are raising concerns about this summer's crops. As they hope for anything wet to fall on their fields, nearly the entire state is experiencing a moderate to severe drought.

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Greenslit remembers his corn and soybean fields got a little over an inch of rain in early August. In the six months since then, he's had less than an inch of precipitation.

In a crop field near his house, he kicks at a rock hard offspring of the dry weather -- a chunk of dried soil the size of a volley ball.

"It's just going to wreck my foot," said Greenslit. "It's like kicking a slab of cement."

In a year with normal moisture, the clump would crumble from one or two blows, but not now. But it resists several more kicks until finally a small chunk breaks off.

"There I've got a little bit of fracturing there," he said.

Even though it's dry, Greenslit is still optimistic he'll have good crops this summer. That's because he's seen droughts in the past begin to fade quickly with the arrival of one friendly storm.

"You dump two and half inches of rain on this on the 15th of April and this will become a non-issue in a hurry, it really will," Greenslit said. "Timely rains are what make big corn crops."

But right now, there's no rainmaker in sight. National Weather Service officials say there is only a slight chance of drought busting precipitation in the upper Midwest though the end of May.

Global air circulation patterns are pushing wet weather elsewhere, said Steve Buan, a National Weather Service coordination Hydrologist at the North Central River Forecast Center in

"All indications are it's going to hold where it's at, at least for the foreseeable future," Buan said. "And that being the storm track, the major moisture producing storm tracks are staying to the south of Minnesota."

That ominous outlook means farmers may rethink some of this year's crop strategies. Many farmers have already sold or are planning to sell next fall's harvest right now. It's a way of locking in the attractive grain prices offered on the futures market.

With the drought causing more weather uncertainty than usual this year, AgriBank CEO Bill York said farmers should be careful how much of this year's expected production they sell in advance.

"We certainly don't want to have them in the position where not only do they have a failure in the crop, but they have sold the crop they don't have and have an additional exposure," York said.

Crop insurance is another area of concern. Although most state farmers have coverage, state officials say they should check their policy to make sure their insurance will protect them against a prolonged drought.

On his farm, Greenslit said the dry weather could actually be a benefit, at least initially. He said if the soil is still dry in mid-April, farmers can plant quickly without having to worry about the normal delays caused by muddy fields.

"I'll plant corn as soon as I can," Greenslit said.

Of course, then he needs the weather to flip-flop.